Turkish Public Sounds the Rallying Cry: Phorm, Go Home!

Turkish Public Sounds the Rallying Cry: Phorm, Go Home!

Enphormasyon, a campaing by the society Alternatif Bilişim, brought the debate over the controversial Delaware-incorporated and London-based advertising spyware Phorm to public attention. Phorm has been operational in Turkey for at least 4 months, during which it has enjoyed the partnership of the largest ISP of Turkey, TTNET.

For those who missed the controversial allegations and investigations into the British company, Phorm is a Deep Packet Inspection technology that monitors the entirety of a user’s internet communications, and aggregates disparate information ranging from surfing history to private photos into a meaningful whole to help advertising companies deliver targeted ads to your screen. Phorm CEO Kent Ertugrul, who incidentally is half-Turkish and has good Russian connections, is experienced in behavioral targeting, and has been the name behind numerous adware (remember Apropos?) while he ran 121Media. Neither Ertugrul’s reputation, nor the Russian ties help Phorm; but the intrusive analysis tool certainly does not need much outside help to be reviled. Or so it is assumed in the EU, where it is banned.

In April, sosyalmedya.co first documented and announced Phorm’s covert entry into Turkey when Turkish internet monopoly TTNET, a subsidiary of the formerly state-owned Türk Telekom, was caught red-handed implementing Phorm technology. During the test phase, an unknown glitch caused nationwide internet outage that lasted for two hours, which resulted in a massive splurge of uncoordinated statements. The outage was attributed to an unidentified hardware failure by TTNET, fiber optic implementation by Türk Telekom, and hacktivist RedHack attacks by The Scientific & Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) and Telecommunications Department (TİB). Once the cacophony died, the information was so diluted for the regular internet user, and so fixated upon RedHack by the online activism aficionados that Phorm went on relatively undetected.

10 weeks after the eventful night, TTNET users noticed random redirects to an advertising portal, Gezinti.com (which, in Turkish, may mean touring, hiking, excursion, and, among other things, internet surfing). Attempting to leave the site served the warning that “if you leave this site, you will automatically agree to the user agreement,” which was the opt-in method Phorm had devised with TTNET to get the vast majority of the internet users to give their blessings to being tracked. Although the phrase Phorm still does not appear anywhere on the website, Ertugrul’s coup with the ISP monopoly TTNET was by then public information.

In the few months it has been operational, Phorm servers already rose to rank 62 in the list of the most visited websites in Turkey, topping web giants like Pinterest, Apple, Instagram, famous national banks, newspapers, government service sites, etc., in traffic. According to Alexa, Turkey—with a little help from another Phorm partner, Brazil—seems to be the major driving force behind Phorm’s Oix.net’s rise to the 6,000th most popular website of the entire internet. Considering that this has all been achieved without intentional visits by users but through background ISP redirects, the amount of opaque activity and privacy violation becomes shockingly visible.

Alternatif Bilişim’s campaign enPHORMasyon is a welcome move to raise awareness against one of the largest and most invasive internet practices that is not (despite TTNET’s close ties to the government) state sponsored. The shroud of secrecy covering Phorm’s activities in Turkey and overall lack of business transparency currently limits the amount of reliable information, but major news outlets like CNN Turk and Cumhuriyet, and other more political news outlets like Bianet and soL, have caught on.

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